Or at least for a time not far hence. The production is set in 2020, on the eve of an election in which, as some prominent banners on Beowulf Boritt’s set suggest, Stacey Abrams is running for president. (Ms. Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia in 2018, was herself in the audience on Friday evening.) At a manse in what appears to be an upper class black suburb of Atlanta, Hero’s father, Leonato (Chuck Cooper), is hosting a regiment of soldiers lately returned from victory at war; they ride onstage in a real S.U.V.
But what kind of soldiers, and what kind of war? The placards the men (and women) carry when marching in formation suggest they are not returning from literal battle: “Now More Than Ever We Must Love,” “I Am a Person.” Are they civil rights warriors? Pride paraders? Election guards defending the integrity of the vote?
Shakespeare didn’t specify, nor does Mr. Leon, but you quickly understand that, beneath the comedy, this production reflects a world in which domestic violence is more of a threat than the foreign kind. Not for nothing does it begin with Beatrice on a parapet singing the 1971 Marvin Gaye hit “What’s Going On.” And when this merges into a mash-up with “America the Beautiful,” sung seriously by the serving ladies Ursula and Margaret, we begin to sense how patriotism and despair are going to make love very difficult.
But mostly it is the credulousness of men that does so. Mr. Coleman hilariously demonstrates the popinjay self-regard just waiting to crack Benedick’s sangfroid. (He’s a toxic bro with bleached blond hair.) What Mr. Harris’s mild Claudio is hiding is scarier: the violence of male vanity injured.
Both men have been played upon by gossip, deception, fake news. That oversupply of unreliable words, clotting the discourse, feels awfully familiar, even if today most of them come at us electronically. So denatured is Benedick by his habit of disguising his true feelings behind banter that he cannot bring himself to say the word “marriage” even as he finally offers it; Mr. Coleman stutters, swallows and eventually manages to eke it out in a pathetic whisper.
The women speak clearly, though: fighting back, setting boundaries. Ms. Brooks makes Beatrice’s ornate resistance seem completely commensurate with the threat; why should she volunteer to blunt herself in a marriage that exists only on someone else’s terms?
Indeed, she is so powerful that, for a while, I worried whether Mr. Leon could bring about a convincing happy ending to the courtship; what Shakespeare calls a “merry war” can look awfully menacing to modern eyes. Still, he does it, in a way that is shocking and, in retrospect, inevitable.